ANAMOSA, Iowa (AP) — Nikki Haley stopped short Thursday of answering one Iowa voter’s question the way he’d hoped.
Asked by 44-year-old Jacob Schunk to label Donald Trump a “grave danger to our country,” Haley ticked through criticisms of the former president ranging from foreign policy to government spending. And then the former United Nations ambassador addressed the challenge that she and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, her closest rival for second place behind Trump, are facing just weeks before primary voting begins.
“The problem is, what I have faced is anti-Trumpers don’t think I hate him enough. Pro-Trumpers don’t think I love him enough,” Haley told Schunk at a town hall in eastern Iowa.
Haley’s comment reflects one of the central challenges facing her campaign as she tries to win over those who still admire the former president without alienating them. It’s a balancing act that will likely intensify in final weeks ahead of the Jan. 15 Iowa caucuses, where a stronger-than expected showing could give Haley a boost heading into the New Hampshire, where she has gained support and appears right now to be the best-positioned Trump alternative.
Her chief rival to become Trump’s leading foil, DeSantis, is facing a similarly challenging dynamic as he steps up criticism of the former president while criticizing the litany of court cases that could remove him from the ballot in some states. On Wednesday, DeSantis attacked the Colorado Supreme Court’s ruling that Trump was ineligible for the ballot under to the U.S. Constitution, suggesting the court was trying to boost Trump and help Democrats who want to run against him.
Speaking with the Christian Broadcasting Network on Thursday, DeSantis argued that the criminal indictments had made it harder to run against Trump by “distorting the primary.”
“I would say if I could have one thing change, I wish Trump hadn’t been indicted on any of this stuff,” he said. “It’s just crowded out, I think, so much other stuff, and it’s sucked out a lot of oxygen.”
Trump and his campaign team have mostly tried to tear down DeSantis but are devoting new attention to Haley in recent days. Allies of both Trump and DeSantis have aired ads in which she is accused of reversing her position to not raise South Carolina’s gas tax when she served as governor.
The ads left out that Haley said she would only sign the 2015 measure to raise the gas tax if lawmakers agreed to cut state income taxes. The plan ultimately died.
“I’m getting it from all angles,” she said. “And I get it. That means we’re surging.”
Haley addressed an audience of about 100 people on Thursday as she wrapped up a four-day campaign trip through small Iowa cities. Haley didn’t cite the indictments against Trump but suggested as she often does that his leadership is too chaotic given the threats the U.S. faces.
Schunk said afterward that he is leaning toward supporting her even if she didn’t say exactly what he wanted.
“She was 95% there,” Schunk said after the event. “I think there’s some strategy there in terms of she’s not quite saying Donald Trump is a danger to the country. I think she thinks it. But she’s not willing to say it.”